On Being an Advanced Student

Mention the word “advanced” to most pilates practitioners, and you’ll get two responses:

One: “Oh no, not for me, that stuff is crazy!”

Or, two: “Bring it on!”

But what does it really mean to be an advanced student? Careful before you answer. Because if you said “someone who does the advanced work”, think again.

First, let’s look at what exactly comprises the advanced repertoire. For most classical pilates programs, it’s not exactly Joe’s full order, as he taught it. Along the way, some things got taken out. The headstands. The balance control step offs. The big backbends. Exercises deemed too dangerous.

Side Note: that stuff is either referred to as “super advanced” or “archival”. Either description definitely makes one pause. But I digress.

So… “Advanced”. On the mat, it would include all the overhead exercises – rollover, corkscrew, jackknife, boomerang, control balance. Ditto for the reformer, plus exercises that continue to challenge a person’s balance, strength, flexibility, and yes, stamina.

But does simply practicing these exercises make you “advanced”? Again, be careful before you answer.

Nope.

Case in Point #1. A new client comes to me: woman, mid-50’s, very active, healthy, been doing pilates “forever!”, and (as she told me) her former teacher considered her “advanced”. Okay, I said, “let’s do a little intermediate-level work and see where we are.” The mat I chose was basic, but she needed the strap for rollup. Okay, I do too sometimes. No biggie. But when we got on the reformer, it was a disaster. She didn’t know any of the exercise names. She banged the carriage and rushed through the setup. She had NEVER been on the long box (pulling straps, backstroke, teaser – never done them). She had Never. Done. Elephant. She did not listen to me. Of course midway through this debacle (for me) I realized her former teacher’s description of “advanced” and mine were completely different. And this woman (while very nice), had been given this label without really understanding what it meant.

Of course the exercises are not the be-all, end-all, so here is my…

Second Case in Point: I observed a one-on-one session, taught by a very well renowned and respected teacher, instructing another teacher as the student. The student: extensive movement background, very healthy and fit, capable of performing anything the teacher would have chosen to give her. Not too widely different from the woman above. So what did he choose? Beginner System. The very basic exercises one learns first on the reformer. And the student? She worked like crazy as the teacher demanded she perfect every last detail and nuance of every simple exercise in the system. But more importantly, she did other things. She listened to instructions and followed them, to the best of her ability. She knew the names of the exercises. She did not whine about wanting to do this-that-or-the-other-more-exciting-thing. She got an amazing workout and had an enlightening experience. She learned something new about the most basic exercises of the work.

So then, what makes an “advanced” student? Attitude. Humility. Respect. Understanding. An Open Mind. A Desire to Learn. Knowing the Fundamentals.

The exercises are important, to an extent. Yes, some of the advanced/super-advanced/archival work is fun, exciting, amazing to watch. As Pilates Teachers, we should all know them, to keep the work alive.

But labeling students by exercises is misleading, and quite frankly, does the student a disservice. It is more important for you – as a Teacher – to teach the student the way they approach the repertoire is almost more important than the work itself. Teach the exercises (as appropriate), but also teach a respect for the exercises.

Some students will get this, and love it, and you will love them for it. Some will have no interest in the finer points and be happy just staying where they are. That’s okay, we’re just glad they’re still doing pilates.

So consider dropping your labels and start adding more quality to the content you teach. Recognize who is ready to “advance” and who needs a little more time. Tell them the exercises are nothing more than that. Yes, some are harder than others, but it’s not a contest. Be a true teacher, look past the labels, and you will make your job so much more than just throwing out a bunch of exercises to entertain or get through a session.

And maybe one day, regardless of what exercises your students are doing, they will all be “advanced”. And your Teaching will be, as well.